Introduction.--The perfect critic.--Imperfect critics: Swinburne as critic. A romantic aristocrat [George Wyndham] The local flavour. A note on the American critic. The French intelligence.--Tradition and the individual talent.--The possibility of a poetic drama.--Euripides and Professor Murray.--Rhetoric and poetic drama.--Notes on the blank verse of Christopher Marlowe.--Hamlet and his problems.--Ben Jonson.--Philip Massinger.--Swinburne as poet.--Blake.--Dante
Some of the essays are dated, important for the early 20th century, but addressing works of some authors seldom read today, such as Murray’s translation of Euripides; minor critics Charles Whibley, George Wyndham, and Paul More; and the dramatist Massinger. Even so, there are important ideas to extract from these essays as Eliot sets forth the ideas proper for the critic. The critic was not yet so well established as today, as most critics gave their impressions – their tastes – such as reader’s response reviews give today.
As important as the subject of poetic drama is to Eliot – he has several more essays on the subject, written later and published in his Selected Prose Works – it strikes me as dated also. The “Possibility of a Poetic Drama” was small then; it is infinitesimal today.
Eliot’s essays on Elizabethan drama, including commentary on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Kyd, are useful to Elizabethan scholarship today. Though it is an essay on Rostand’s Cyrano, the definition of rhetoric as used by Elizabethans is important.
The most important essay, today, and probably the most anthologized is “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It is vital for every writer to read. As Eliot was a poet, more than the scholar, he writes for those who write. In this essay he comments on how every new poet’s work affects the whole tradition of poetry, and how the tradition affects the new poet. The poet should consider their own work in historical context.
There are many great quotes to use, so many I could not paraphrase because they are no better said. The few that stand out, related to criticism, are statements that became standards among New Critics:
“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” 47
“A literary critic should have no emotions except those immediately provoked by the work of art....” 11